Friday, August 14, 2009

anything not attached to an experience is worthless

The title of this post is a quote from From the Outside In, a book written by Dr. Brown. He says:
Understanding without noticing words—that’s the name of the game. Anything not attached to an experience is worthless. But can we really ignore words?
Several paragraphs later:
The answer I found is best explained with these two words: ‘wonder’ and ‘grow’. Words have to grow—gradually. Experience by experience. And the mechanism of growing in each experience is ‘wondering’. The experience is the cheese. But there’s a hole in it. A fledgling word floats by and you wonder: ‘Might that word fill that hole and take its meaning from it?’ Click! Let me expand the two words to five. Experience, hole, word, wonder, and grow. The word grows a new ring of meaning with each experience. Like an onion.
And a few more examples are given and then:
So the big question as we started the NA course was “What do we do about voca-bulary?” And three years later I got the answer. “Nothing!” Don’t teach words at all. Don’t even call attention to them. Just let the students wonder. Just let the words grow.
So, in order to learn words and grow our vocabulary, we need to be paying attention and wondering. That is to say, thousands of hours of TV or audio on in the background, is not the figure you want to go for. While it does add to the amount of time that you do pay attention, it's not the target. Having the TV on in your target language helps, but only the time actually spent paying attention can count towards the number of hours that you have worked toward your goal.

This is why I've stopped recording my Japanese TV hours. Out of the 300+ hours that I put in, I don't know how many of those were hours spent actually paying attention. It shouldn't matter to anybody here anyway because my Japanese methods have not been one single method that could prove anything. I just need to keep the TV on so that I will increase the number of hours actually watching it. When I get back to Chinese, I will keep those hours purely focused on the content so I can wonder and grow.

What happens when you don't learn naturally?

What happens to all those words that you don't wonder and grow? Where does all that vocabulary go when you use an output-based approach to learn a language? Let's look at a couple of examples.

The first example is Tim Ferriss. He says he's reactivating Chinese. I guess "language reactivation" is necessary when you don't really learn a language in 3 months.
I began reactivation of irretrievable German just over a week ago and can already hold a decent conversation. - September 20th, 2007
This volume covers our trip preparation, Pu-erh tea cakes, and basic Mandarin language reactivation. - July 12th, 2009
Learning new languages and reactivating old ones (in this case, Mandarin Chinese). - August 12th, 2009
At 24:50 in his video from Aug. 12, 2009, he pulls out the Living Language Chinese book. As you know, a book for beginners. He thinks only using Chinese to learn Chinese is ridiculous (27:20).

The second example comes from a well-intended fellow trying to learn Czech to fluency in 3 months. He also uses an output approach. (He probably read too much Tim Ferriss material.) His name is Benny Lewis.
After living in Spain for one year and successfully having reached a pretty good level of Spanish, I moved to Germany for 2 months (to practise the German that I had learned in school), then Italy for 3 months.
To make matters worse I was completely forgetting my Spanish, Italian and German (and in fact, I never did get my German back; that will be another 3-month mission some day!) After all the work I put into speaking these languages, it was depressing that I was back to square one and not even able to piece together basic sentences again!

Why not just translate?

If you translate and then one day stop using the language, you would end up like Tim or Benny. Here's what Dr. Brown said about why you should not use translations:
Because it would then get stacked in the pantry as a memorized unit—instead of glued in the web by wonder to every experience it had ever appeared in. Whenever you wanted to access it for the rest of your life, you would have to go to the pantry. That translation would have killed that word for life. That’s the difference between artificial language (on the shelf) and real (in the web).

What happens when you do learn naturally?

Now let's look at an example of taking a break from natural learning. Another excerpt from Dr. Brown's book:
One day during our second year of operation, a student returned from a three-month break in his native Australia where he hadn’t heard a word of Thai. He said that he had probably forgotten a lot and had better repeat NA 2. I told him that you never forget natural learning. He could take NA 3 and he would find that he was right where he left off. Two days later he came in to see me. “You were wrong, you know. I wasn’t right where I left off. I was way ahead.” I couldn’t explain it. Then a few months later another student reported the same experience. Then another. I was mystified.

Finally it happened to me. After I had studied natural Swatow for 8 months, my teacher took a 5-month trip to the States. When she came back I felt like I was on a whole new level.
This is why I am not worried about the break I am having to take from Chinese. I am not worried about language atrophy. I am interested in seeing if I will be understanding better than before. Although I do not experience the language directly, I feel I do experience it through what I see and hear. On TV you can see and hear a lot too.


  1. So, are you saying that the break in the language for your friend actually helped them understand better because all the book-learned translations dropped away and he was just left with stuff that he actually learned in context?

    To me, that sounds like a great reason to use book learning as a jumpstart, then soak in the language for a year or 2, then ignore it for a couple months. The book learning should drop away and leave you with just the natural stuff.

    Luckily, with the way I'm learning, that will probably happen anyhow. I tend to go at it in spurts with gaps here and there. Once I get good enough to read/watch/listen to Japanese that I don't feel the need to study, I'll probably stop studying for a while and see what happens. At the worst, I just start studying again and get it back that way.

  2. I haven't said anything about a friend taking a break in the language, have I?

  3. Sorry, not your friend, the author's friend. Got a little mixed up there.

  4. If you are talking about Dr. Brown's students (not friends), there is no description saying that they ever did any book-learning. Book-learning is not part of ALG World.

  5. Since you referenced Benny Lewis, I had a look at his blog and read about his experience with learning Spanish in Spain. At one point, having an apparently very modest base in Spanish, he decided to only speak Spanish for the next 30 days, and then take it from there. He managed to get by and actually improve his communication skills, but he described his Spanish as still basic and grammatically wrong after these 30 days. He chose to continue with his no-english-at-all-policy and called it "the smartest decision" he ever made "to achieve fluency".
    I have serious doubts about this approach. If you follow this approach, you're very likely to spent most of your efforts on trying to produce your target language, and you don't have time or energy to listen, to pay attention, to notice, or just passively absorb. You'd be constantly searching your memory for this word or that phrase, missing out on a lot of valuable native input. Because you spend so much energy on the (not really native-like) phrases you put together, they are very likely to get hardwired in your brain very quickly, leading to what's called fossilized language.
    Even though you might quickly reach a certain level of communicative skills and learn how to get by with the locals using bits and pieces of their language, you'll never reach fluency.
    I mean, isn't that obvious to everybody, or am I a bit ALG-brainwashed? :)

  6. I think book learning is a terrible waste of time (and potentially damaging). My experience with the "TV method" is that even though you know say ni = you (by translation - learning from a book) I still didn't KNOW it. I had to translate it. That's not understanding mandarin at all. That's useless.

    My strong belief is that a word MUST be internalized through experience. You have to see the word being used in the situations it is used, and the meaning is created from there. I find a word's meaning is usually steadily built up over time(but I did learn one sentence in a flash).

    I'll have more to say about this after I've got more hours under my belt.

  7. Well, you say 'terrible waste of time'... But I say 'I wouldn't have gotten this far without it'.

    I don't have time (or patience) to sit around watching TV all day and not understanding it at all. It's incredibly frustrating and I get nothing from it.

    On the other hand, having memorized a lot of basic words from book-learning, I can now watch TV and have a basic grasp of the simple sentences and it's no longer impossibly frustrating.

    Yes, book learning creates a barrier than must be overcome for true fluency (translating), but it also helps the student over some barriers along that way.

  8. Memorizing words does not help a student overcome barriers. It is constructing a moat filled with scorpions and and socialists around the target language. It's another (much, much more difficult) barrier to overcome for the learner to achieve a native grasp of a language.

    I'll say it again (although if you'd read Keiths posts you would have noticed yourself), you do not "know" a word through memorization. You may be able to fool yourself into thinking you do, but you don't.

    Meaning comes from experience, and if you can't grasp that, it's your problem.

  9. So to summarize,

    Grammar learning and vocabulary memorazation ARE useful as long as you use them as a headstart to be able to understand native input, but you shouldn't rely on them to try to PRODUCE language.

  10. Now that I can agree with, gbarv. I might even go a step further and say that you shouldn't -try- to produce from book learning.

    But to say book-learning is useless... I can't agree with that at all.

  11. No, gbarv, that's not it at all.

    Memorizing words does not help you understand native input. It creates a barrier between you and native fluency.

    You understand words by observing IN WHAT ENVIRONMENT they are used.

    You may not even notice the word at first, but after a number of times (critical mass?) you do notice the word getting used. You start off with a vague idea of what the word means, then that vague idea gets honed over time as the circumstances you observe it in allows it to.

    It's quite simple.

  12. This might be encouraging for people to know. I went from a 1+ ILR level in Egyptian to a 2+ in only 6 months just by watching TV shows and listening to music. There were no classes involved. I didn't have any dictionaries or lists of vocab to memorize. People think that languages are like math or science and that you have to study and dissect in order to learn how things work, but it just isn't so. Your brain has evolved to be able to learn languages. You don't have to know what's going on or how it's happening, but eventually after lots of exposure, you will learn the target language if you don't give up. Languages take years to learn. Look at how long it takes babies to learn to speak and that's with 100% immersion in the language. You can't expect to really learn a language from scratch in 6 months.

  13. Babies are not adults. You can't infer anything about adult learning from babies. Their brain isn't wired up the same way an adult's brain is.

    As for 'no books', you just said you went from 1 to 2 without books, but how did you get from 0 to 1? You used books!

    Books are a great tool to get the basics of -any- skill. They allow you to learn from the mistakes of others much, much faster than 'a baby' could.

    No, books will never make you fluent. Nobody here is suggesting that. But they are far from useless.

  14. I don't see how 'book learning' creates a barrier between 'you and native fluency. Ever heard about Richard Simcott, listen to his German and French, flawless, and no he didn't spend 800 hours shut up, he learnt the basics from books, then he went to get input, from TV, radio, and especially from people, that is he talked a lot. No speaking will do no damage to your fluency. Had he just sat to watch German TV he would be still learning it and would never had time to learn the other like 15 languages or so.

    I'm sure Keith will someday master his languages, with all that zeal and enthusiasm. It is certainly impressive to go from 0 to 25% percent understanding in Mandarin, but to be fair nearly 100% understanding should be attainable in 550 hours.

  15. Learn a bit about language learning. Ask any German, native like:

  16. From the comments on youtube:

    How old were you when you started learning German?
    - I was 22.

    How do you go about learning vocabulary?
    -I find vocabulary list best. I write out lists of words and leaf through dictionaries for related words.

    Book learning certainly didn't create a barrier betwenn Richard and native fluency.

  17. There are many polyglots who use word lists as their main tool. Word lists don't harm you in any way if you know how to use them right.

    Ideally several different methods should be used to assure best results. One should consciously learn new words, one should read a lot, listen and watch a lot and speak a lot.

  18. Of course alexvinidiktov, you should leave wordlists and textbooks sonner rather than later and go get real, native input. But the point is that many people here are dismissing 'book learning' as utterly useless. There is no 'damage'.

  19. gbarv: It's funny that so many people dismiss learning from textboks and then if you ask them how they got from level 0 to level 1 it turns out they did use a textbook or an audio course of some sort.

    Take for instance Charith, the guy from Sri Lanka Keith interviewed about how he had learned Japanese so well. If my memory serves me that guy had studied Japanese using traditional methods for a year or so, and only after that did he begin watching lots of Japanese televesion to which he attributes much of his success. But it bears repeating that he didn't jump into watching TV right from the start, he had to build a foundation first: acquire some basic vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

  20. Hi this is Benny - Just noticed this post. For the record, I only read Tim Ferris' work recently; I had been applying my own developed method a long time before I discovered Tim's, although I admit that our learning methods do have a lot in common.
    I find it funny that you call your learning method "natural" :P I go and live in the country and speak with actual people, I'd argue that's much more natural. Your different learning method definitely has some interesting possibilities, but it's kind of hard to take seriously if you say that it's "better" than actual intensive immersion. Tim's and my method are not 100% output; that's silly! I don't go around all day speaking non-stop, I have conversations with others, and interact and pay attention to a conversation that is directly relevant to me, rather than a TV show. I get to use a word that I memorised in the right context and that makes it stick (I only need mnemonics to "unnaturally" recall it the first one or two times).
    Your approach seems to be pure input, which may work in some regards, but perhaps much less efficiently. This is why I claim that my (or Tim's) method lets you reach fluency in such a short time.
    You may be right about your method being better for long term retention, but as I said in the post you linked to, I just need to make sure that I can practise regularly and I can maintain fluency. You kind of quoted me out of context and missed the whole point of what I was talking about...

    @bakunin I didn't reach fluency after those 30 days in Spanish because my learning approach left a lot to be desired (it was the first time I ever tried to learn a language; not having even really tried in school), I've since improved that and still think that I could reach fluency quickly with my more hands-on approach.

    The TV method is interesting, but I can only say that I strongly disagree with it. I haven't read up on it much, so perhaps you can suggest why I'm confused in thinking that watching and listening to a cathode ray tube (or LCD) of images and sounds beamed through satellites or sent through cables from someone in an air conditioned TV studio on the other side of the planet... is in any way more "natural" than actually talking with other human beings? :)
    I will very occasionally watch TV/movies or do other inactive activities, and I do indeed study books, but these are just to give structure to the actual human interactions that I focus most of my time on to reach fluency.
    I don't like TV and agree with William that I'd find it way too frustrating and time consuming to listen to "noise" that I can't possibly understand, especially over long periods of time.
    Although I strongly disagree with the post and some comments, it's an interesting topic. Thanks for the link-love and the interesting discussion ;)

  21. Benny, I can't speak for Keith but he's been absent for a while so I'll try to defend him.

    Keith desrcibes the TV Method as natural because it is the same way a baby or a child acquires a language on their way to becoming a native speaker. The native speakers of a language are the finest speakers of that language in the world. Their methods, by logical deduction, are the best.

    To illustrate the claim of this method being the natural method -

    The child simply listens. The sounds are heard but cannot be recalled. After a while the brain has the ability to recognise the sounds that make up the language. Then they begin hearing words and phrases repeatedly until they can recall them. Due to seeing the situations the words are used in, the childs brain begins to piece the words meaning together, experience by experience, until the words meaning is finalised. This is repeated until the child has acquired enough of the language to think in it, and they begin to speak. They then can be called a native speaker.

    A child does not buy a phrase book and memorise translations. A child does not speak until it has aquired enough of the language. A child does not worry about its accent. A child doesn't even have to think to speak. It just "pops up", to use Dr Brown's term.

    Next time do some research on a subject before you criticise it. Your post shows an indifferent ignorance to the subject at hand, which asks the question why do you feel you have the knowledge to critique this method without even doing the minimal research required to understand it? I know you feel you have your reputation and pride to consider, as you feel you've found the right way to learn a language. But that is no excuse for not even having a basic understanding of the topic you are trying to argue.

    I sincerely hope you take the time to research this method thoroughly as it is a wonderful and enjoyable way to acquire a language.

  22. "Their methods, by logical deduction, are the best."

    No, their methods, by logic, are guaranteed to produce native speakers... If you've got years of time to dedicate to it and have no other languages to contend with.

    Very few adults are in that situation, and only not many more can put themselves in that situation.

    There's nothing wrong with -any- method, so long as you have the time and patience to correct its shortcomings.

    If I had a lot of free time, I'm sure the TV method would interest me greatly. As it is, I can't dedicate that kind of time each day for it, and trying to do it without dedicating enough time is useless as you will forget it faster than you are learning.

    Book learning methods have their own problems, but requiring hours of study each day is not one of them. I can deal with those problems much easier.

    Also, I think 1 last thing should be noted: The TV method is -not- the same way a child learns. A child has needs and wants and no way to communicate them. It studies language as a way to communicate its needs. TV cannot respond to you and has nothing that you need, and therefore there is no compulsion to communicate. It also does not correct you when you are wrong or provide any structured learning whatsoever. Parents -do- provide some structured learning to their children just through playing with them and saying the names of certain things over and over until the child gets it.

  23. @Jack You respond quickly to "defend" Keith not realising that the post is actually a direct attack on Tim's and my methods, and shows equal lack of research and indifference to our approach as I am showing to yours. The post only focusses on where we say that lack of practise means we will lose our level; ignoring the fact that we reached that level very quickly and that practise isn't actually such a bad thing!
    My method works, and I don't like wasting time watching TV when there is a big beautiful world out there. Even if your method were somehow "better", mine is more fun ;) I can barely stand watching TV when I understand 100% of it. You all must have an unlimited amount of patience to listen to such vast amounts of noise.
    As I said in my previous comment, it's interesting and your baby analogy certainly sounds plausible... but babies have lots of time to kill (which most adults don't) and don't speak because they physically CAN'T, their muscles simply aren't formed for it yet. You aren't a baby, you are an adult, and adults are SOCIAL creatures. Baby's are pure input machines, we aren't. It seems like a cop-out for fear of making mistakes with natives. If you are watching TV because you can't travel to the other country or find any natives in your area, that's at least understandable, and I applaud you for committing so much time to doing *something*... but I am amazed that there is this suggestion, actually conviction, that it's better than actually talking with human beings.
    Sorry but I'm not going to stop my travel-oriented approach to learning languages and sit in front of a TV (or have it on the background); I wasted most of my teenage years watching shows that didn't add value to my life and I consider TV nothing more than a black-hole of time. I'm sure this TV method approach works for some people, but VERY SLOWLY. You are devoting hundreds of hours to it to reach what some may consider a level which is not that impressive given the time investment, where actually speaking and working out mistakes would be more effective.
    This isn't about my reputation; there are plenty of learning methods and I don't dispute that they all technically "work", the traditional academic approach works, the TV method works and the intensive immersion approach works. What I'm saying is that those other methods are simply inefficient. If I want to open a tin of beans, I could keep throwing the tin off the top of a building - it would still achieve the goal. Or I could just use a tin-opener...
    Sorry, but to be frank, I can't say that I plan on doing much research on this subject; if you were all somehow 100% right that the TV method is the best way to learn a language I'd find that depressing. Lucky for me, my methods do work, and apart from the criticism given here that I will lose my level unless I practise (which I'm cool with), I don't see any reason why I should replace people with a box. I am very open to new approaches, and some of the comments on my blog have shown me holes in my approach that I've adapted to and introduced entirely new learning methods that I'm going to apply. But other than telling me "go read the research", I still have to see any even basic advantage of the TV method over actual communication. This isn't theory and I'm not drawing analogies with babies. I am speaking so confidently because I do actually speak several languages, plain and simple.
    If you are having fun with your remote controls knock yourself out. I am having fun chatting up local girls, telling ridiculous stories at parties and making small talk with my neighbours. To each their own I suppose! Hopefully you can see why I'm so casually dismissing the TV method, and I'd ask you to consider immersion with the same open-mindedness that you did with the TV method ;)

  24. Good luck with your studies Benny, you really going to need it.


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